Like many, many others, I have long loved the work of children’s author and illustrator Tomie De Paola, and particularly how he includes insights into his Italian heritage and his vibrant Catholic faith through simple story-telling. A Mormon friend introduced me to his book The Clown of God, which ably introduces the concept of vocation to young children, which I have come to see as a vital task of Christian parenting.
Retelling an old French tale, de Paola situates the story in the southern Italian town of Sorrento at the beginning of the Renaissance. Giovanni is a parentless child who “begs his bread” and also happens to be a gifted juggler. His juggling helps him survive day-to-day, and local merchants appreciate his ability to attract a crowd on market days and improve their profits.
One day, Giovanni sees a professional troupe performing in the town, and inquires as to whether he might join them. The troupe’s Maestro reluctantly agrees, and thus begins Giovanni’s career as a court juggler with clown makeup on his face, entertaining dukes and princes and the adoring masses. His signature juggling act involves him adding balls, color by color, slowly building a rainbow of circulating balls, with the climax when he finally tosses high “the Sun in the Heavens,” a golden colored ball.
One day, journeying between performances, the now-grown Giovanni comes across two Franciscan monks who ask him for some bread and cheese. He happily shares it as the brothers tell him that they travel “begging their bread and spreading the joy of God. ‘Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. ‘Why, even your juggling,’ said one of the brothers.” Giovanni is bemused by the idea that his juggling is something that brings glory to God, but the idea is planted. His career continues successfully and his performances keeping drawing in the crowds.
The crowds that once thronged to his performances have become jaded by their familiarity with his act. Giovanni has aged, and during one performance, he drops the Sun in the Heavens, instigating mockery from the watching audience, who pelts him with insults and stones. Giovanni runs, washes the clown makeup from his face, and returns to the forlorn rhythms of his childhood, begging for bread and sleeping in doorways. During a storm he ducks into the cathedral at Christmastime, and watches the congregants bringing their gifts to “the Child,” a somber statuary depiction of Jesus the boy in Mary’s arms.
Perhaps accustomed to seeing the cheerful faces of his once-adoring crowds, Giovanni is startled that the face on the Christ child statue is so joyless. Giovanni decides, after the congregants have left, to offer his gift of juggling to Jesus. The old man puts his clown face makeup back on, and begins his traditional performance once again.
The resident monks hear Giovanni in the church, and seeing him juggling, they believe he is committing some sort of sacrilege. But Giovanni continues, and as he finally tosses the Sun in the Heavens to his rainbow of juggling balls, Giovanni drops dead. The monks who were initially enraged by Giovanni’s actions in the church are now met with an even greater shock: the Christ child statue “caught” Giovanni’s golden ball. The once-sombre Son now holds the Sun in the Heavens and is smiling.
That is vocation. Sometimes the church does not value the gifts that God gives. But gifts, talents, skills, and the gift of a self surrendered and given to God bring God joy — and his joy is our greatest longing, our surest home, the safest place on earth.